As American diners become more and more health-conscious, they’re having a hot debate about what it really means for food to be healthy. It’s important for restaurant operators to keep up with the latest trends in healthy dining – but at CAKE, we know the best choices are both appealing and affordable. This week, we’ll take a closer look at the differences between local and organic ingredients, so you can make informed decisions about your restaurant’s inventory.

 

What’s in a Name?

According to research by SONARTM, J. Walter Thomson’s market research tool, 49% of US Millennials expect all products to be GMO free. 43% of the same group expect to see organic ingredients, 53% say natural, and 64% are looking for sustainable options. These distinctions matter – but they may not be as different as they sound.

GMOs are genetically modified organisms. That is to say, food items that have had their DNA altered to make them more profitable, more delicious, or just plain different from their original genetic makeup. For a recipe to be truly GMO-free, it would need to leave out common ingredients such as corn, canola oil, and most forms of chocolate.

Organic ingredients are more popular than ever. Research shows that 82% of American households buy organic, and our country spends nearly $50 billion on this category every year. Farmers can call their produce organic when they obtain a special certification from the USDA, proving that they adhere to certain practices, such as avoiding harmful pesticides.

“Natural” food is harder to label. In fact, in November of last year, the FDA officially released a request for the American public to help them define this category, asking such questions as, “Whether it is appropriate to define the term ‘natural,’” and if so, “how the agency should define [it].” This leaves us wondering – if there is no official definition of “natural” food, then what qualities are 53% of Millennials looking for?

Food that is classified as “sustainable” may or may not be good for the person eating it. This term refers to the item’s impact on the environment. For example, sustainable seafood is responsibly sourced to avoid overfishing, and fed nutrient-dense algae that will not harm either fish or humans.

 

Vocal about Local

Local food falls firmly in the “sustainable” category. Local pig farmers may sell bacon by the pound – that doesn’t mean we should eat it in the same quantities! One of the biggest selling points of local food is its lower impact on the environment due to decreased transportation costs. A pallet of strawberries that only travels 10 miles from farm to table will consume far fewer fossil fuels than the same amount of food traveling cross-country.

Because of the decrease in transportation costs, local food can sometimes be less expensive for restaurants. However, food from smaller farms can sometimes be less reliable, since these businesses have much smaller supply chains.

More and more, we’re seeing local farmers whose small businesses can’t afford the official USDA Organic certification. Certified organic food is required to follow certain guidelines – but many uncertified farms follow the exact same guidelines, just without the paperwork to back them up.

“I’ve seen farmers who post signs saying ‘as organic as I can be’ or ‘following organic practices,” says Joe Masabni, Ph.D, a vegetable specialist at the Texas A&M Research & Extension Center in Overton. Just because these small business owners can’t afford to cut through the red tape of getting certified, doesn’t mean they’re necessarily using harmful pesticides to grow their food.

 

Quality is Key

When you’re considering which produce to buy, start by comparing the data in your Point of Sale system to the exact language on your menu. Are your guests more likely to buy items that are listed as “organic”? How about “local”? Or even the nebulous “natural”? Whatever ingredients you decide to stock, make sure they’re items that your loyal fans will be excited about.